The Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. This was likely a death knell for a long-controversial project aimed at extracting one of the world’s largest copper and gold ore deposits, but which threatened breeding grounds for salmon in the pristine Bristol Bay region.
The battle over the fate of the mine has been raging for more than a decade. The plan was abandoned years ago under the Obama administration only to find new life under President Trump. But opposition from Alaska’s Native American communities, environmentalists, and the fishing industry never let up, and recently even the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., an athlete who fished in the area, spoke out against the project.
A critical approval under the federal clean water law, which was seen as a must for further action, could not be obtained on Wednesday. In a statement, Alaska District Commander of the Army Corps, Col. Damon Delarosa, said the mine, proposed for a remote tundra area about 200 miles from Anchorage, “would be against the public interest” because “it is not Clean conforms to guidelines of the Water Act. “
Opponents said the large open pit, which would excavate and process tens of millions of tons of rock annually, would irreversibly damage the salmon hatcheries that form the basis of a sport fishing industry and large commercial fishery in Bristol Bay. Salmon is also a staple diet for the Native Alaska people who live in small villages in the area.
“The Corps’ denial of approval for the Pebble Mine is a victory for common sense,” said Chris Wood, executive director of the Trout Unlimited conservation group. “Bristol Bay is the wrong place for industrial mining.”
Lindsay Layland, United Tribes of Bristol Bay deputy director, who has been fighting the project for years, said that while the decision means the project may be dead, the risk remains that the gold and copper ore will continue to be mined in the future could be. “That doesn’t mean those minerals won’t be in the ground tomorrow,” she said. “We must continue to push for long-term, permanent protection.”
In a statement, John Shively, interim chief executive of project developer Pebble Limited Partnership, said the partnership will “focus on clarifying the next steps for the project, including an appeal against the decision.”
Mr Shively described the Corps’ action as “politically motivated”, particularly given the fact that the Corps had approved an Environmental Impact Statement earlier this year clearly stating that the project could successfully coexist with the fishery and would have significant economic benefits . “
The Environmental Impact Statement was finalized in July by the Corps, which was empowered to approve or deny a permit under federal clean water law. However, a few weeks later the Corps stated that the company’s plan to offset environmental damage caused by the mine was insufficient and requested a new plan.
The new plan, which was not made public but was believed to designate land near the mine as permanently protected, was presented last week.
The mining industry and many state officials have supported the project in terms of the revenue and other economic benefits it would bring. But some key Alaskan politicians, particularly Senator Lisa J. Murkowski, a Republican, had given no obligation and said the mine should only be operated if it could be proven that it was environmentally friendly.
In a statement on Wednesday, Senator Murkowski said the Corps’ decision confirmed “this is the wrong mine in the wrong place”.
“This is the right decision, the right way,” she added.
Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency overturned an earlier decision and allowed the Corps to continue its environmental review. Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps will review all dredging and backfilling activities in waterways, including wetlands as in the area of the proposed project.
Support for the mine among the Republicans has never been as staunch as it has been with some other projects with potential environmental impact, particularly potential oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also in Alaska. And many Democrats had been vehemently against it.
Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, one of the project’s major congressional critics, welcomed the Corps’ decision. “However, denial of a permit does not mean Bristol Bay is safe from the threat of the Pebble Mine,” Senator Cantwell said, adding that the future administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. should make it a priority to be permanent Set up shelter for the Bristol Bay fishery.
The Pebble project even sparked a rare dispute within the Trump family. In August Donald Trump Jr., an avid sportsman who fished in Bristol Bay, his opposition to the mine tweeted: “The Bristol Bay headwaters and surrounding fisheries are too unique and fragile to take any risk. #PebbleMine. ”
When asked about his son’s views and prospects for the project in the days that followed, President Trump said only that he was considering “both sides” of the issue and that politics would not play a role in any decision. However, privately, administrative officials said they expected the permit to be approved.
But in September the future of the multi-billion dollar project appeared in doubt when secret records from company executives indicated that they were planning a much larger mine and one that would operate for far longer than what had been proposed to the Corps.
The recordings were received from an environmental agency with two members who posed as potential investors for the project meeting via video with two project managers. The executives described how the mine could operate 160 years or more beyond the proposed 20 years and how its production could double after the first two decades.
In the aftermath of the recordings, one of the executives, Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, resigned.